How satellite-guided cows could save the Kansas prairie and make ranchers more money

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“The Flint Hills are really the only place where we have significant contiguous acres that are still in native tallgrass prairie,” said Tony Capizzo, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s work to preserve it.

Flint Hills ranches that thrive are likely to stay ranches – and unploughed grasslands – instead of dealing with development.

“Ranching is intrinsically compatible with grassland conservation,” he said. “Breeding must remain profitable.”

The Nature Conservancy owns the 10,000 acres Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve next to Mushrush property. Bison roam there, as do some of Mushrush’s cattle, thanks to a lease.

The grassland needs pasture – enough of it – to thrive. It prevents certain plant species from taking over, so the earth continues to harbor its diverse collection of herbs and wildflowers.

The fauna that inhabit the prairie, on the other hand, enjoys an uneven landscape, in which different areas bear the marks of varying degrees of grazing and burning. The Nature Conservancy thinks GPS could help achieve this goal.

Mushrush said he and the Nature Conservancy may rank their priorities differently, but their goals still overlap.

His top priority is keeping the grass as healthy and strong as possible, so he can graze more cattle and the ranch remains profitable for decades to come. He hopes the GPS collars will help him keep livestock in the right places at the right time to achieve this.

And if researchers can show him how to nurture grassland biodiversity at the same time, he says, “it’s definitely worth a try.”

Protect birds and water

“That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited” to study virtual fencing, said Alice Boyle, a K-State biology professor who studies birds. “This is the first solution that I know of that is positive… from the point of view of ranching and grassland conservation. »

Cattle have only recently received collars. This year, the devices will track where animals spend their time, but won’t restrict their movements.

K-State biologists will use these months to assess the current situation before the virtual fences go live. Then they will see in years to come how the prairie responds to a more agile way of managing livestock.

They will look for changes in nitrogen pollution and erosion when livestock can no longer regularly roam along their favorite waterways.

They will look for plant diversity and vigor in areas that need rest.

They will look for an increase in grassland birds.

Half of North America’s grassland birds have disappeared since 1970.

For Kansas, that means open plains icons, such as brightly colored, sweetly singing meadow larkshose each spring in smaller numbers.

“In many ways, the species we care about…define our natural landscape,” Boyle said. “And we live in the last great stronghold where these populations are still common.”

Once spread, prairie chickens known for their eerie cries and dances on the breeding grounds, called leks, now retain shrinking feet in scattered parts of the central United States

The virtual fence project could help by effectively delineating rest areas from prescribed burning and grazing, long enough to leave a carpet of dead grass called thatch accumulating at ground level, interwoven among the living grass.

Many grassland birds need thatch to survive.

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